Since last week a lot of people have discussed how anybody would be confused on finding Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis' murderer anything built guilty. How a white man who routinely uses racial slurs and stated he hated black people can put on a sweater vest and be transformed into Mr. Rogers; while all black men no matter what their station in life are Willie Horton. Gangsters. Thugs. Gang bangers. Violence an immutable trait coiled under our very surface. A russet dermis overlaying a truculent soul. We are always dangerous. We are always the villain. The killer of Susan Smith's children, the shooter of the banker with the dead pregnant wife on the Charles River Bridge and just recently the man who shot himself then lied and told the police a black male attacked him. It's an all too easy excuse. I mean it has been proven that black men can weaponize anything. That we are all a hare's breath from the long arm of the law.
I had just returned from working in India for about four months. I returned to work that Friday afternoon. There were several new employees. I was introduced to them as their manager when the oddest thing happened. I was speaking with one of the new hires, a charming woman that reminded me greatly of Diane Wiest, when she saw the hint of my tattoo peeking from behind the sleeve of my polo shirt. She asked "Is that a tattoo?"
"Yes," I said.
"May I see it?" I pulled up my sleeve. She looked at it. "I used to volunteer at a youth center in Newark and I used to work with a lot of ex-gang members. All of their prison tattoos had meanings. Were you in a gang?"
"Do I look or sound like I've ever been in a gang?"
"Well I don't know. You are black. I think." she smiled at her own deduction. It took every fiber of my being to not break out singing "America!" from West Side Story complete with Jerome Robbins choreography. "I was a member of the Northside Quips," I snapped, "where blood and glitter ran in the streets after every rumble." She just stared at me for a moment, my shade lost upon the train wreck of her mind.
A few weeks later during our annual evaluation period she wrote in her review, in true conservative fashion, that God lead her to understand the job, and I assume ostensibly me, treated her like a slave and she was nobody's n-word. I fired her on the spot.
These kinds of interactions are what black parents are talking about when they give their children "The Talk."
The Talk is the conversation that some black parents have with their children, primarily boys as they reach puberty. Because once a black boy grows pubic hair he's no longer cherub-cheeked Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) he's darkened by Photoshop OJ Simpson. For us as black men there's no transitional period. We don't get to use youthful exuberance as an excuse for reckless behavior. We don't have a nation rally behind us when we've been caught stealing street signs and sentenced to a public ass whoopin'. We get shot. Or arrested at staggering numbers. So our parents have to give us "The Talk." To make sure that we are aware that America does not afford us an even playing field. That in many cases the field is slanted to make it harder for us to even get on it. That when you go about your life that there are going to meet people fearful of you for no reason. That they may harm you. That you simply being alive proves a greater threat than influenza or their drunk husband. So be careful of furtive movements. Make sure your car's inspection and registration is current and up to date. Don't loiter in predominately white neighborhoods. Don't give the police a reason to arrest you or worse. Don't give that white lady walking her dog any reason to shout rape. Don't give that teacher any reason to send you to the principal for back-talk.
In full disclosure: I didn't get The Talk.
And you know what? I'm glad I didn't. From the time I was a small child my mother and father told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and go anywhere in this world that I wanted to. There was no limitations on my progress or my imagination. There was no talk of averting eyes. There was no mincing of words. When I got a grade of unsatisfactory in behavior in fifth grade it wasn't because I misbehaved. It was because I argued with my teacher who erroneously said the Civil War was fought over state's rights. I corrected her. My parents told me to boldly step forward. They didn't teach me to be fearful or subservient. But to speak my mind and follow my heart. So when President Obama said that he could have been Trayvon I understand that he means it not in a literal sense. But in a sense that he would never run from a white man questioning him or his purpose in any neighborhood. I've been pulled over by police on my way home to my mother's house when I was just out of college. The white police officer asked me what I was doing in "this neighborhood" as if to imply the impossibility that I could actually live along a tree-lined street of stately homes. I didn't tell him I lived nearby. Why should I have to? Instead I told him that as a tax-payer I can drive my car anywhere I wanted in Winston-Salem. And if he had no other reason to stop me then he should let me go on about my business. We as black men are under constant surveillance. So our well meaning parents try to prepare us for life and safety. But as Tonyaa Weathersbee stated on The Root this week that keeping black children safe is making it okay for some whites to be racist.
Let's put these recent murders into perspective. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were in a place that they had a legal right to be. They were not committing a crime. They had no duty to retreat when confronted by an attacker or angry motorist. They had the right to meet force with force. They had the right to use deadly force if they reasonably thought their life was in danger. They had the right to stand their ground. But in America it is unreasonable to think that an unarmed black man is the victim and not the aggressor.